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RetroSaudi: The Company Town

November 12, 2017

Well No. 7, 1938

“When the huge ship dropped anchor at sundown, it astonished everyone. It was nothing like the other ships they had seen: it glittered with coloured lights that set the sea ablaze. Its immensity, as it loomed over the shore, was terrifying. Neither the citizens of Harran nor the workers, who streamed from the interior to look, had ever seen anything like it. How could such a massive thing float and move on the water?

Voices, songs and drums were heard as soon as the ship neared the shore; they came from the shore as well as the ship, as all the Americans in the compound flooded outdoors. Music blared as small boats began ferrying the passengers from the now motionless ship. There were dozens, hundreds of people, and with the men were a great many women. The women were perfumed, shining and laughing, like horses after a long race. Each was strong and clean, as if from a hot bath, and each body was uncovered except for a small piece of colored cloth. Their legs were proud and bare, and stronger than rocks. Their faces, hands breasts, bellies – everything, yes everything glistened, danced, flew. Men and women embraced on the deck of the large ship and in the small boats, but no one could believe what was happening on the shore.

It was an unforgettable sight, one that would never be seen again. The people had become a solid mass, like the body of a giant camel, all hugging and pressing against one another.

The astonished people of Harran approached imperceptibly, step by step, like sleepwalkers. They could not believe their eyes and ears. Has there ever been anything like this ship, this huge and magnificent? Where else in the world were there women like these, who resembled both milk and figs in their tanned whiteness? Was it possible that men could shamelessly walk around with women, with no fear of others? Were these their wives, or sweethearts, or something else?

The people of Harran stared, panting. Whenever they saw something particularly incredible they looked at each other and laughed. They clicked their teeth sharply and stamped their feet. The children raced ahead of them and arrived first to sit by the water, and some even dove into the water to swim towards the ship, but most of the people preferred to stay behind on the shore, where they could move around more easily. Even the women watched everything from afar, though none of them dared to come near.

This day gave Harran a birth date, recording when and how it was built, for most people have no memory of Harran before that day. Even its natives, who had lived there since the arrival of the first frightening group of Americans and watched with terror the realignment of the town’s shoreline and hills – the Harranis, born and bred there, saddened by the destruction of their houses, recalling the old sorrows of lost travellers and the dead – remembered the day the ship came better than any other day, with fear, awe and surprise. It was practically the only date they remembered.”

Abdulrahman Munif – Cities of Salt, trans. Peter Theroux

Nothing I’ve read more powerfully imagines the impact of the oil era on the people of Saudi Arabia’s east coast. The American compound in Munif’s fictional Harran was actually called Dhahran. And it was at the nearby fishing village of Al-Khobar that the locals would have flooded out to view the ship.

The third piece in my RetroSaudi series is about Saudi Arabia’s first company town, built by the consortium of American oil companies who founded the Arab-American Oil Company, or Aramco for short.

I first wrote about Dhahran in 1987, around the same time that Saudi Arabia completed the final stage of its acquisition of Aramco. When I first visited what the Americans called the camp, it had become a small town, and very different from the cacophonic sprawl of Jeddah, where I was living at the time.

Here’s what I wrote then.

Then (1987):

A flat brown landscape broken by the occasional rocky hillock. Rusting cars and bits of machinery abandoned like relics of a war. Pipelines half-buried in the sand. The occasional ancient dump-truck lumbering down a superhighway. The land stained with heat and dirt. A few miles from the Bahrain causeway you come to the gates of what looks to be a large compound typical of many “camps” built by foreign companies to insulate their employees from the local environment. But this is no ordinary compound. For a mile out lies Well Number 7, where, in 1938, a strike of 7000 barrels an hour trans- formed a charmless patch of waste ground into the most valuable piece of real estate in the world. And changed everything.

Dhahran is Aramco, a company town. The Arabian-American Oil Company built Dhahran around Well No.7 and its successors, and so created a place like no other in the Kingdom. By creating Dhahran and thereby founding the first colony of foreign guest-workers, America laid the foundation stone for the Tower of Babel Saudi Arabia was later to become. The town is a tribute to that singular talent of the Americans to reproduce their own environment in the most unlikely places (remember Alan Sheperd playing golf on the moon?).

Dhahran boasts tidy sidewalks, neat little houses, bowling alleys and supermarkets. It has long American cars whose drivers chew gum and wear baseball hats. It even has the occasional traffic jam. Until recently it was closed to Saudis, and its American inhabitants lived their lives in the American Way, unobserved and unrestricted. Even women drive in the camp, a privilege unheard of elsewhere in the country.

Nowadays things are changing fast. Since the state became an increasingly dominant partner in Aramco (the company is now 100% Saudi-owned) this exclusivity has broken down, and many of the owners now live in the camp. But a number of its more arcane traditions remain. As a non-Muslim Aramcon you can still buy pork in the camp supermarket, a privilege much envied by the rest of the pig-loving expatriate population. Those who are found to have bought more than their allotted pork ration in a given month suffer the ultimate penalty: their personnel records are marked PV, and they are banned from further purchases of the unclean animal for a set period, depending upon the gravity of the offence. PV, of course, stands for Pork Violator, perhaps the most wonderfully misleading acronym yet invented by an American bureaucracy.

Next door to the camp lies the University of Petroleum and Minerals, to which was recently added the prefix King Fahd, presumably at the behest of an anxious dynasty that needs constantly to be reminded that not a slab of concrete is laid in the Kingdom that is not directly or indirectly attributable to the dynamism and generosity of the ruling house. Even before the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques (no doubt reluctantly) allowed his name to adorn this distinguished academic institution, the UPM campus was spectacular and impressive. Today it remains an example of architectural excellence rare in its consistency; the Saudis tend to build something beautiful and then ruin the effect by erecting a monstrosity next door. UPM is tasteful throughout. Its academic standards are high, and the best of those who don’t make it to the foreign universities come here.

As a place for foreigners to live, the area ranks second only to Jeddah as the most desirable posting in the Kingdom. For Aramco employees, with their special privileges, it’s the only place to be. The climate is more forgiving than in the interior, pleasantly cool in the winter, steamy in the summer. The authorities are rather heavy-handed in the Eastern Province, particularly in religious matters; this is largely because Iran, being so close, exerts a strong gravitational pull on the area. Most of Saudi Arabia’s Shiite Muslims live on the east coast, and the government is constantly on the alert for signs of unrest among followers of Khomeini. Strange institutions known as “Societies for Elimination of Vice and Propagation of Virtue” keep a stern eye open for improper behaviour, and every so often circulate broadsheets to local employers warning them not to allow their employees to walk about displaying their genitals (in other words, tight trousers for men, and anything other than a loose black garment, known as the abaya, for women).

Inside the Aramco camp, however, the oilmen and their families don’t concern themselves with such niceties. For them life goes on as it has for the past forty years. The women, wearing shorts, cycle to the ballpark to watch their kids play softball; the men take their Chevy Blazers up to the Rolling Hills Country Club, unload the golf clubs, and set out for an afternoon of relaxation on the. fairways and greens (which are, in reality, browns) of Aramco’s eighteen-hole course.

Whatever the Saudis might think and say about America, Dhahran is living proof that the expertise that helped the Kingdom pack five centuries of development into fifty years is not to be dispensed with just yet.

Now (2017):

There are many other legends about Aramco in the days when it was an exclusively American enclave. Every new family was given a leaflet called “The Blue Flame” with detailed instructions on how to safely distill their own spirits at the back of their houses. Those who did were not always as safety-conscious as the booklet advocated. They included a householder who happened to be away one evening when his prefabricated house exploded. Legend has it that the camp engineers constructed a new house on the site by the following morning.

These days backyard distilleries and pork violators are ancient history. I actually think I was wrong to suggest that pork was available after the final stage of the Saudi takeover. It would have been inconceivable that the new masters would have allowed such idolatrous practices.

The inhabitants of the Aramco camp, by the way, were not the only people with access to the unclean meat in the 1980s. We inhabitants had our own source, in the shape of a downtown Lebanese butcher who, if you asked him for “special meat”, would disappear to the back of his shop and produce choice cuts. It tasted pretty good, though rumour had it that it was actually warthog from the south of the country.

In other respects the Aramco camp has not changed much. The relaxed rules for women remain in place, and an increasing number of them work for the company. The golf course is now green, and internal traffic police still patrol the streets to enforce speed limits that would horrify drivers outside the camp with their stringency.

The company itself, now known as Saudi Aramco, has grown from strength to strength. Not only is it one of the foremost petrochemical businesses in the world, but it’s become the go-to project manager for prestige construction projects such as the King Abdullah University for Science and Technology near Rabigh in the west.

The American influence has waned. Most of the stalwart managers and technologists have retired after long careers in Dhahran. Those senior Americans who remain are in advisory roles. Saudis run the company, and it gets its expertise from wherever in the world it can find it, while still going to great efforts to develop its national workforce.

The topic of the moment is the forthcoming flotation of 5% of the company. Fine in principle, but Saudi Aramco’s governance has always been somewhat opaque. The percentage of the oil and gas revenue it generates that finds its way to the royal family, as opposed to the spending ministries, has always been a closely guarded secret. I await with interest to see how they deal with that little conundrum as they prepare for the open governance that will be required of a public company listed on one of the world’s major stock exchanges.

We have come a long way from the days when King Abdulaziz and his son King Saud used to go on tours around the country and, beaming with benevolence, would throw gold coins to the throng who had come to greet them.

All thanks to Saudi Aramco, who keep pumping out the oil.

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